On November 30, 1885, the Traverse City State Hospital opened under the direction of Dr. James Decker Munson. During its lifetime, it was known by many different names, including the Northern Michigan Asylum, the Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital, and the Northern Michigan State Hospital, before finally closing in 1989 after 104 years of service to the mentally ill. Sadly, not only were the patients forced to relocate after its closing, but many jobs were lost at what was then one of the largest employers in the city.
The Traverse City State Hospital operated differently from most others of the period, taking on a “beauty is therapy” philosophy: straitjackets were forbidden and creativity was encouraged. The hospital was located on 135 acres of land, providing enough room for a working farm, and patients were given the opportunity to engage in farm work to help them maintain a sense of purpose while hospitalized. The farm was home to a world champion milk cow named Traverse Colantha Walker, who still has a grave and headstone located between the former asylum and farm areas. Many greenhouses were built around the State Hospital to grow plants meant for beautifying the wards where patients lived. A few of the farm’s barns remain, along with a beautiful garden maintained in part by those completing community service.
Recently, the Traverse City State Hospital has undergone extensive renovations in the careful hands of The Minervini Group, and is now known as The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Many stores and restaurants have made their homes there, including Cuppa Joe and High Five Threads, and farmers markets are held in the long hallways during colder months, drawing great crowds on Saturday mornings. The grounds have great trails for hiking, dog walking, snowshoeing, and many festivals are held there, including the Traverse City Microbrew Festival. Condos are available for purchase, and every time I come across an individual who lives in one, I ask the same question, “Have you ever encountered a ghost?” No one has claimed to have seen one yet, but the thought of living inside an old insane asylum will always be intriguing to me.
Before the renovations took place, it was common for teenagers to hop through a broken window and explore the inside of these formerly abandoned buildings – it was always eerily cold, despite warm summer temperatures outside. I never encountered anything unexpected, but I also never felt comfortable being inside for an extended period of time. Guided tours were offered in some of the sturdier buildings, and although those were conducted in the daylight and with plenty of people present, exploring the old insane asylum was always an chilling experience. Nowadays, the cheery atmosphere makes it easy to forget what was once there, but the renovations still allow for the Traverse City State Hospital’s beauty to show through, and old photographs of asylum days hang throughout the hallways to remind residents and visitors of the former use of the buildings.
Jennifer Hamilton, Feature Writer